The gold on the Notre Dame helmets will shimmer in the Tempe sun on Saturday, but will they blind Arizona State enough for the Fighting Irish to walk out of Sun Devil Stadium with a victory? It's the question on everyone's mind. That shiny color is the perfect metaphor for what the Fighting Irish have stood for in college football for decades: the gold standard, and one that Arizona State will have to bypass to truly be in the conversation for a national championship
Both teams have had to work to get here, but the makeup of each team is different. Arizona State is compiled and pieced together. It's filled with players like Kweishi Brown, Jaelen Strong and Marcus Hardison, all guys who were given a second chance at Division I football. Notre Dame won't admit JUCO transfers to play football. It's a lot easier for Brian Kelly to walk into a recruits' home and say, "Son, we'd like you to play for the University of Notre Dame" and the player to say yes right there on the spot than it is for Todd Graham and his staff.
It's a clash of styles too, a defensive style East Texas native Todd Graham calls "blue collar." Players like redshirt junior Jordan Simone who walked on and is now tied for the team lead in tackles with another former JUCO player in Damarious Randall embody that ideal.
When it comes to traditional powerhouse program success, Notre Dame has the edge. Arizona State ate at the big kids table in the 1970s and again in the mid 1990s, only to return briefly last season. Notre Dame has eaten meals there steadily for decades. The Fighting Irish have 11 national titles, seven Heisman Trophy winners and have inducted 44 players and six coaches into the College Football Hall of Fame. Their current quarterback Everett Golson led them to a BCS National Championship Game appearance two short years ago. Saturday is a huge game, but hardly the biggest game in the career of their upperclassmen.
It's also appropriate then, that the Sun Devils will wear gray desert fuel jerseys into battle Saturday and Notre Dame will don the signature gold helmets. The darker, grittier uniforms for a program that has worked their way back to this spot against one that has had the crown atop their head multiple times.
It wasn't until Dec. 1 last season that the Sun Devils arrived at No. 11 in the AP Poll. This season they're back in that spot an entire month earlier, which hardly anybody expected. The last time they made it any higher during the regular season was 2007, and before that? The final week of the 1996 season.
So Notre Dame isn't the the only team feeling the pressure to win on Saturday. As Arizona State makes it back to No. 11, it is a subjective number, but it means more than that. The team is back to the same spot as last season and as the saying goes, "fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me." With the advent of the College Football Playoff, the Sun Devils are still in the conversation for a national title, something that couldn't be said after they reached No. 11 last season with one loss. The farthest Arizona State could go last season was a Rose Bowl appearance.
History will be made either way, Saturday will be the fourth straight home game for the Sun Devils against an AP-ranked opponent which has never happened before. Arizona State wants a win, but also wants true national respect again.
The No. 9 next to its name in the College Football Playoff rankings has helped Arizona State gain that respect, but it's still not enough for these fans. This fanbase felt tossed aside as the Fighting Irish tried to get Arizona State off their schedule. A lack of respect was felt again this past week when College GameDay picked East Lansing, Michigan over Tempe for its live broadcast. It almost reads too perfectly like a passage from the Bible: a school founded in the traditions of the Catholic religion trying to get rid of the Sun Devils, but now they must come into the scorching desert sun if they want to emerge victorious.
Now, No. 9 against No. 10 in the College Football Playoff Rankings is just three days away and a sense of fierce independence has washed over the Valley. While validation from College GameDay that this game does in fact matter would have helped, the Sun Devils will put that grey uniform on Saturday and just go to work, unfazed by the national consciousness.
A long stretch of three games remains for the Sun Devils after Notre Dame with one home game and two road matchups including the Territorial Cup, but a win would solidify Arizona State as a contender in the title race. If the Sun Devils come away victorious, then perhaps that moral value of "national respect" that has remained elusive at Arizona State for many years will finally arrive.